Five-hundred kilometres east of Darwin on the edge of the Arafura Swamp lies the community of Ramingining or ‘Ramo’, land of the Yolgnu people. Culturally rich, the lifestyle viewed as idyllic with the community of about 800 people surrounded by freshwater wetlands and the wildlife that call it home.
“The kids here, they’re living in paradise, but for most of them, it’s all that these kids have known, so you get bored of doing the same thing – going out fishing in virtually untouched waters, going hunting for magpie geese and getting turtle eggs and hunting turtle. It’s a rough life,” laughs school teacher and Community Athletics Leader, Metui Tongatua.
“The biggest social event is legitimately just walking around,” he explains. “There’s footy on this afternoon, so that’s kicking off in a bit. I can’t think of a whole lot else.”
Tongatua and Ramo local, Justin Gaykamangu, are steadily adding a new element to life in this remote East Arnhem community. The pair run regular athletics training sessions, and coach Kids’ Athletics in the school as part of Athletics Australia’s Athletics for the Outback program. Gaykamangu is also part of the Indigenous Marathon Project. For Tongatua, it’s an opportunity borne of necessity.
“I was frustrated that I had all this talent out here and around this region,” he says. “The kids rock up to their school carnival with minimal training, just with all I do in PE, and then you see these athletic freaks.”
Tongatua points out that there is one local who can run 100 metres in 11.40, “never trained a day in his life.” Eager for change and wanting to enrich the lives of the local community, he joined the Athletics for the Outback program.
“I took some kids into Darwin for the Northern Territory Athletics Championships, and everyone’s got their running shoes on and their tights. I’ve got my kids with oversized singlets, barefoot and running with chains and earrings and stuff,” he says. “It was awesome, they just dominated. It’s nice to see.”
There’s an air of the great unknown when it comes to athletics in Ramingining. Footy and basketball already have the kids’ attention. Athletics is something you do maybe once a year at the school carnival. It’s fun, you compete against your mates and get a ribbon. But things are changing, Ramo has even recently held its first Colour Run in partnership with Athletics for the Outback. Tongatua believes the community’s enthusiasm for athletics is helped along by the work he’s doing with his colleague and community member Gaykamangu.
“There’s a bit of a history of people coming out and saying, ‘imagine this’ and people shrug it off,” Tongatua says. “With Justin, I think him doing it is allowing people to see that I’m not just talking out of my proverbial. He’s doing it himself, and he’s from here.”
Gaykamangu’s son, Asman, is set to compete at the Australian All Schools Championships in Adelaide this week.
There is plenty of work to do. In late November, two Athletics Australia Coach Facilitators, Victorian Mark Reed and Queenslander Blayne Arnold travelled to Ramingining to deliver a Kids’ Athletics and Level 2 Intermediate Club Coach course attended by seven community members from Ramingining and nearby Milingimbi.
Tongatua believes the key to the program’s success is the element of fun which results in an automatic confidence in the kids’ outlook when they arrive for an athletics session.
“I think because of my interaction with them at school and my PE classes that they immediately come in and it’s fun from the start,” he says. “Out here, everything’s relationship based. If you don’t have a rapport with someone, you’re going to struggle. Everything I do is fun, so the kids expect it. I think to myself, what would I have enjoyed as a kid. Am I just going to run back and forth and try to get fit or are we going to play a game?”
Kids are also keen to test themselves against 16-year-old Asman, and before long they’ve learned something new, and their skill levels have improved.
Tongatua is certain that the Gaykamangu’s influence is crucial to the success of the program in Ramingining.
“It might sound a bit odd, but my goal is to make myself redundant. There is a bit of scepticism around non-locals, they kind of fly in and fly out,” Tongatua says. The Yolgnu recognise that, and they’re very standoff-ish until they can see that you’re genuine and sincere, then they’re inviting and accepting. I’ve cleared that hurdle. So, if I were to leave with my family, the talent and the skills wouldn’t leave with me. I work very closely with Asman, and I’m helping him to get to the point where he 100 percent doesn’t need me. The coaching sessions that Justin can run, it’s always going to be more meaningful to the people he’s coaching because he’s from here. He understands them better than I ever could.”
Athletics for the Outback reaches Indigenous Australians in communities throughout Australia via a combination of activities including in-school coaching clinics, recreational running events and leadership and education initiatives including the Raise the Bar Academy. The program aims to provide equitable opportunities for Indigenous Australians of all ages and abilities to participate in and celebrate athletics in the community. Athletics for the Outback is funded by the Commonwealth of Australia’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy and generous support from GE and Coles.